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Australian Terror Suspect Will Not Face Execution If Convicted

Australian terrorism suspect David Hicks will not face the death penalty if he is found guilty by the United States of war crimes and attempted murder. This assurance has been given by the new U.S. ambassador to Australia, Robert McCallum. Hicks has been held at the U.S. detention center in Guantanamo Bay since January 2002.

Robert McCallum says he has assured the Australian government that if found guilty on terrorism charges when the U.S. Congress eventually approves a new military commission system, Australian David Hicks will not be executed.

"There have been certain assurances given to the attorney-general and to the prime minister - Prime Minister Howard - about the death penalty," said McCallum. "He [Hicks] will not face the death penalty."

These assurances follow concerns raised by Hicks's American legal team, which said the new-look tribunals could impose the death penalty under the revised system.

At his first news conference in Canberra since arriving to take up the post of U.S. ambassador, McCallum, a former lawyer from Tennessee, also defended Hicks's treatment at Guantanamo Bay.

The ambassador said under the law of war, enemy combatants could be held "during the course of hostilities," and he stressed that the conflict with international terrorists was still on-going.

Thirty-one-year-old Hicks, a former kangaroo hunter who converted to Islam, has been in U.S. custody in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, since January 2002, a month after he was captured allegedly fighting with Taleban forces in Afghanistan.

McCallum rejected suggestions that because Hicks has been held for so long without trial - more than four years - he has been denied justice.

The previous U.S. military commission system, under which Hicks had been due to stand trial, was ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court. The Congress is expected to decide on a new military commission process next month.

Hicks's Australian lawyer, David McLeod, said because the new legislation was still in draft form, it was too early for assurances about the death penalty.

The detainee's family has painted a picture of an idealistic young man with a passion for religion and adventure who was caught in "the wrong place at the wrong time."

The Americans see things very differently. They insist Hicks is an extremist. He is accused of conspiracy to commit war crimes, attempted murder and aiding the enemy. Hicks has denied the charges.